By Todd Duncan, Law Enforcement and Safety Specialist

One of the fundamental responsibilities of corrections officers is to ensure the care, custody, and control of inmates. When it comes to custody and control, few things are more important than ensuring that doors within the jail are always kept secure. A simple Google search of four words, “inmate escape open door” will provide countless examples of dangerous offenders who have escaped from custody through jail doors that were not properly secured. Yet despite the risk, it is not uncommon to see jail doors, including those protecting master control, providing access to weapons storage lockers, and separating secure areas of the jail from public lobbies propped open by staff for convenience.

Best-case scenario when an inmate escapes is that the inmate is quickly captured without incident and the only injury is to the agency’s reputation. The worst-case scenario is much more sobering. In one tragic example from 2019, an inmate raped and murdered Tennessee Department of Corrections administrator Debra Johnson in her home on prison grounds after escaping from custody. The inmate had been assigned to a minimum-security housing unit and was working as a trustee at the time of his escape. While this escape was not the direct result of an open door, it serves as a reminder that even inmates classified as “low risk” can be extremely dangerous, especially when they escape.

The safety of staff and citizens is not the only concern. The potential legal liability of an inmate who causes harm to another person after escaping can be very costly. In the above case, Johnson’s family has since filed a $5 million wrongful death lawsuit against the state alleging negligence by the Tennessee Department of Corrections.

Fortunately, the risks of inmates escaping through open jail doors is nearly entirely preventable by following the simple three step risk management formula of policy, training, and oversight.

  1. POLICY: The first step in mitigating this risk is to implement a policy that prohibits propping or leaving doors open within the secure area of the jail. This includes doors that provide passage between secure and non-secure areas and doors providing access to master control rooms, sally ports, utility closets, vacant cells, doors to jail key storage boxes, or any other area inmates should not have access to.
  2. TRAINING: Once policies and procedures are in place, all jail staff should be trained on the importance of facility security, including maintaining security of all critical doors within the jail. Training can be as simple as reviewing the policy with all staff upon hire and annually thereafter; explaining the “why” (serious officer and public safety risk); and sharing examples where open jail doors have led to inmate escapes, attacks on staff, etc.
  3. OVERSIGHT: When it comes to oversight, three great leadership philosophies come to mind, “Inspect what you expect,” “Trust but verify,” and “Manage by walking around.” Take your pick. They are all good reminders that the buck stops with leaders to set the tone and provide their staff with the tools and training necessary to be safe and successful at work. A tell-tale sign that this dangerous practice may be happening in your facility is the presence of wedges or other objects on the ground near doors that are being used to prop doors open.

Complacency kills in this profession. Stay safe out there!